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The Pitfalls of Arbitrary Game Mechanics

by: Dabe ; edited by: Michael Hartman ; updated: 4/17/2012 • Leave a comment

Games need rules or parameters for the player to engage with. These rules are often easy workarounds and arbitrary in nature, mimicking a desired effect by using these game mechanics, developers have created intrinsically perfunctory mechanics that are nothing but false means to engaging the player.

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    Arbitrary Game Mechanics

    The limits of player control are often defined by a cogent rule set as dictated by the game developers code. Sometimes these rules cannot be fully enacted without blockades or illusory checks to prevent the player from breaking out of the games definitions. These game mechanics are often at odds with the story, narrative and world presented to the player. With this contrast between game world and mechanics, we often get underwhelming and arbitrary ways to empower, disempower or simply annoy the player.

    In this article, we will be looking into the different kinds of arbitrary game mechanics, analysing their impact on both the player and their nascent game damaging qualities. There are many arbitrary mechanics that try to mimic plausible interaction, instead of just defining boundaries or witless empowerment, which we will procrastinate on as well.

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    Wave Respawns - An Arbitrary Gaming Mechanic

    The first of a long laundry list of mechanical faux-pas’ occurs when an infinite stream of enemies supposedly exist within one space or area. Constantly respawning enemies and surreptitiously unforgiving reinforcements make for a rather disingenuous illusion. Call of Duty and its unlimited hordes are probably the most obvious example of this type of game mechanic. Waiting for the player to cross a preselected boundary or checkpoint within the area/level is the means by which developers can enforce this mechanic.

    Infinite Waves of Enemies The problem with this is in its destructive nature. Implicitly creating a false or unnecessarily heightened difficulty because of poor level design or an sadistic desire to create tension while conveying nothing of consequence to the player. As I’ve discussed before, disempowerment can be a great thing, but when the reinforcement of this is nowhere to be found and its becomes nothing but a petty illusion the result is pointless.

    What we have is an arbitrary game mechanic designed to instigate difficulty for difficulties sake. If the whole premise of the mechanic wasn’t absolved when crossing a set boundary or checkpoint in the level, then there would be some merit to using such a fistic way to enhance the games toughness, the recent Demon Souls on PS3 is a solid representation of this ideology. Instead we get something arbitrarily used to cause affront to us when playing on the higher settings of difficulty in games like Call of Duty or even Bioshock to a lesser extent.

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    Quick Time Events and Arbitrary Action

    Deadly Premonition Another arbitrary, often infuriating game mechanic is the luminous and unintelligent quick time events strewn throughout many games cut scenes. Ever since Shenmue and its pioneering of this faux-interactive mess game players have been privy to this arbitrary nonsense in many other upper tier titles. God of War has a penchant for such a mechanic, as does the world of recent Resident Evil games, not to mention genre clones such as Deadly Premonition and Dante’s Inferno.

    Flashing a button onto the screen in order to represent some kind of interactive action that the controlled character is performing seems redundant. While direct influence and control are positive steps in creating a remarkable gaming experience, having needless QTE’s only hampers the scene or end up decommissioning the established immersion.

    This is given further emphasis when the story or gameplay will either require you to memorise and complete the section before continuing (Shenmue) or not be affected by the quick time presses of the player (see Heavy Rain). Reflexes and muscle memory are prerequisite skills for this mechanic, being steeped in arbitrary inclinations, which becomes nothing more than tapping buttons to the tune of a filmic presentation or scene.

    Heavy Rain does a decent job of circumventing the muscle memory requirement for sequences with quick time presses in them. Giving the ability to complete the scene without getting the presses correct or missing them entirely. This serves up multiple outcomes to the scene based on player input, which is a good work around in order to take something arbitrary and attach involvement or meaning to it. When the story is reinforced by the players actions, then at least some input is occurring, as opposed to the game playing itself with arbitrary mechanics thrown in almost for show. Which Heavy Rain is also completely guilty of amusingly enough.

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    Game Mechanics In Level Design

    Without arresting your attention too much, we will look at some other arbitrary ways to reinforce the player or just needlessly gamey game mechanics used to mask realism with implausible empowerment. An annoying exponent of this comes from many games, although for the purposes of this article I’ll select the recent released and lauded Red Steel 2, whereby the player wantonly executes barrels and other unimaginatively placed boxes, crates and telephone booths for money.

    Collecting a huge amount of dollars from trash cans and superfluous barrels throughout the illicit level design seems rather perfunctory or even arbitrary. In other games, like Resident Evil or Deadly Premonition, the goal is to collect items instead of straigh up currency from this random environment devastation. Although the effect is still the same.

    Emphasising the baffling nature of this mechanic further comes when games decide to place explosive barrels in the midst of trash, garbage, rubbish or general shrubbery. Convenient placing of said explosive crates is ugly level design and the arbitrary nature of their use is lazy at best.

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    The Arbitrary Mechanic of Depleting Weaponry

    Red Steel 2 Moving away from inconceivably placed props to empower the player we look at the dizzying need for survival horror games in particular to use weapon wear. Game players accept this arbitrary mechanic almost too easily. If I have a crowbar I fully expect to be able to use it more than 7 or 8 times before it becomes decadent or can’t be used again. I’m sure Gordon Freeman agrees as both he and Valve clearly know how to maintain a crowbar for multiple enemy encounters and usages.

    It seems preposterous that a knife or steel pipe will be thrown away after five hits, even if its bent out of shape, a pipe could certainly come in useful. This is the problem, the mechanic itself is only required to reinforce the survival aspects of the gameplay, otherwise games like Resident Evil or Deadly Premonition would become a whole lot easier.

    Half Life Crowbar However if your pipe had insurmountable longevity the game would be adjusted accordingly. What we’d get from this is perhaps a better and less arbitrary game mechanic to reinforce the players panic, terror and overall surviving atavism. Obstacles and levels would be presented in a less narrow spectrum and entail engaging puzzles while requiring thought provoking engagements. Instead of this potential we are thrown weapons that deplete after several uses to falsely replicate the emotions that a game wants to enact. This will often fail...

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    Pitfalls of Game Mechanics

    Games use arbitrary and often infuriatingly simple mechanics to circumnavigate design difficulties. With the apparent difficulty in realising often more expansive ways to reinforce the same conclusion, they tend to go the easiest method, in this case the use of depleting weapon gauges or out of context explosive props. If Capcom can use depleting weaponry as a game mechanic, instead of thinking up a more convoluted way to emphasise the emotional engagement to the player, invariably they will attempt the easier option. It is an unfortunate reality that arbitrary traits and mechanics will exist to falsely give the player a desired effect, whether that be drugging them with dollar signs or making them feel tense and fearful because of a disempowerment.

    For further discussion on some topics and other areas of game design, check out these articles and their digestible procrastinations;

    Illusion of Choice

    Gaming And Its Affection for Empowerment Fantasies

    The Evolution of Cutscenes in Gaming

    Retrospective: Dreamfall